well now i feel like a giant ass

b/c the old man really did kick it.

if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know who i’m talking about: our old man neighbor, the loner, the one we always checked in with each other about–that we’d seen him around. the one i’ve been irritated with for months and months: for his overgrown yard, rat factory garage, unconnected gutters…for reporting us to the city for a bag of leftover recycling that was mistaken for trash when i don’t even know if he’s the one that reported us. the one we could have reached out to more b/c we knew he didn’t have any family or friends.

we’d been smelling something weird in the house since wednesday or thursday. honestly, it smelled like a dead mouse, but just in the front of the house. we figured this was the case, since we just hired a new exterminator and he’d set a bunch of traps. as the days went by, it got stronger. hell, just this morning holly was sniffing really deeply–reallly really deeply (ugh)–by our front window looking for clues. we lifted up the arm chairs yesterday, half-expecting to find a rotting mouse or something. late last week we lifted up the couch. nothing there either. the smell sort of seeped into the basement, too. i’d even decided i’d call the exterminator to have a look this week since we just couldn’t find anything. it got to the point that we couldn’t do anything for any period of time (homework for holly, various writing assignments for me) b/c the smell got so distracting that we couldn’t concentrate, let alone cook, and it really freaked us out that we couldn’t locate its source.

we didn’t see the old man on halloween (us three next-door neighbors: the “BGE guy,” old man and holly and i usually sit on our marble stoops each year with bowls of candy for trick-or-treaters). heck, we hadn’t seen him for at least a couple of weeks. we decided today we’d knock on his door to see if he was ok. if no one answered, we’d call 311, the non-emergency police line.

we knocked before we left to go out this morning. no answer. then we knocked on our neighbors’ door (the one who lives on the other side of the old man, the aforementioned “BGE guy” and his family) to ask if they’d seen him lately. or smelled something. but they weren’t home. we knocked on the old man’s door when we got back. still no answer. we talked to a couple more  neighbors and asked if they’d seen him lately (he usually walked out to the local grocery store a couple times a week) and they all said, come to think of it, no we haven’t. so that’s when we decided we’d call 311, all the while expecting it to be nothing. he’d be alive–and mad and freaked out when the fire department kicked down his door, hell that might kill him, we figured–and we’d have wasted a whole lot of emergency responder time over a dead mouse in the wall, and we’d feel like the crazy, worry-over-nothing neighbors.

as soon as the officer got to the old man’s front door he knew. he said he could smell it from outside. plus there were flies on the inside of the windows. and condensation. (we’ve had an abundance of flies lately. it’s been odd, and i…don’t want to talk about it.) he was “95 percent sure” he said that our neighbor was dead inside the house, and had been so for some time.

soon the fire crew came, took out their ladders, climbed up and opened his windows to get in. we watched from the roof (we didn’t want to be in the house, but we didn’t want to be outside of it either; the roofdeck seemed like the best possible option, tho we noticed we could smell it from up there, too) as the firefighters and officers put on oxygen tanks and masks to go inside. that’s when i knew that our very worst baltimore nightmare had come true.

i wasn’t out there when they cracked the windows open, but when i came outside a little while later, there were still flies swarming on the formstone front of his house. the smell spilled out onto the sidewalk. it morphed into a smell that i don’t want to ever smell again. it’s burned into my memory.

i felt selfish for feeling so grossed out and disgusted. after those grossed-out type feelings passed a little, i felt just plain weirded out that we were just going on with our lives as he lay dead inside. (he must’ve had a heart attack and fallen on the ground, the crew told us.) once i got all those feelings (temporarily) out of my system, i started feeling really sad for him. that he didn’t get to die with dignity or with family around. that he was so alone in this world that the two girls next store wound up smelling something and called the police and the coroner had to take him out in a bag. that’s no way to go. then we both started feeling bad for not making more of an effort. we should have brought him hot meals, holly said. i shouldn’t have been so mad at him the past few weeks (since we got that environmental citation i suspect he turned us in for), i said. hell, the last time i saw him, just over two weeks ago, i’d say, he was standing in his doorway, wanting to say hello. he was oddly friendly all of the sudden, and i figured it was b/c he wanted to keep us off his trail (from suspecting that he was reporting our trash that wasn’t really our trash). he startled me, and i said hello and that was it. i was grumpy. little did i know that would be the last time i’d see him alive. now i feel terrible about it.

i take comfort in the fact that, in my mind, he’s not alone anymore. and with loved ones long gone. i wish the cops hadn’t thought it’d be funny to tell me gruesome details i pretty much begged them not to tell me so i could picture him as i had known him: as the white-haired, long-bearded eccentric man, always in his tan safari hat with the string hanging around his neck. walking quietly to the supermarket, always in khaki, multi-pocketed cargo pants and a dark blue jacket, always buttoned up, even on the hottest days. who mumbled about public television shows even i didn’t watch (like britcoms; oy, the britcoms) even when i worked at one (admittedly, i watch very little public television; yes, even when i worked at a public television station). who thought we were spying on him when we built our decks. the ex-morgan state librarian who tried to be friendly to us, even tho it was painfully obvious it was hard for him.

we won’t be staying in our house for the next couple days. (i’m writing this from our good friends’ house) it needs to air out. my whole head needs to air out, actually. i’m going to saline spray the hell out of my nose before i go to sleep tonight. we think our freshly laundered pajamas may have an odor to them, but honestly, what can we do? i’m going to ignore it and just put them on and try to go to sleep.

we continue to shake our heads b/c we never really thought it would come to this. we didn’t really think he’d “kick it” and then we’d “smell something.” it was always this morbid half-joke. and here’s it come true.

i’ve got to admit that this is just too much. i just want some peace and quiet. i just want all of this disgusting stuff to stop (and i haven’t even told you the half of it; i am saving some real doozies for the book). i know i joke around a lot about everything: about our neighborhood. the hookers and the dealers and the rats and the alleys. but at this point, i gotta say:  i really just want to move away and leave this all behind. i don’t want to go back to our house. i feel like everything’s changed. i don’t want to sleep there. i don’t want to live there. i feel crazy just thinking about it. baltimore, i’ve had enough. i really think it might be time to go.

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11 responses to “well now i feel like a giant ass

  1. Ah, Jess. Hugs to you and Holly. You are good women, the two of you, and you did something good, though it doesn’t feel like it right now. Sweet dreams.

  2. you went beyond … and always have. Hugs for you both

  3. Yikes! Holy moley! It really is sad that the fella had to pass away like that, but like you said, he’s been liberated from ‘this mortal coil’ and now Somewhere Out There.

    On the other side of the coin, this is probably an unfortunate but universal theme in developed cities.

  4. i am SO proud of you both. even when you say you were “grumpy” and you “should have”, I know that you are one of the most compassionate people I know. That fact that you feel as much you as you do right now and have put yourself in his heart and mind makes a huge difference in this world, and we LOVE you for that. I have a similar story I will share in an e-mail. Rewash your clothes and use lots of pure and gentle organic-chemical-free fabric softeners that will give you comfort and not migraines. ❤

  5. Wow. This morning, Nate said “the old man kicked it” and I immediately knew exactly who he was talking about. By sharing this story with all of us, you have inadvertently gotten a whole lot of people thinking about a person who probably hasn’t gotten much thought in years. How random to be eulogized in your neighbor’s humor blog. Old man, I never knew you, but I’m a huge fan of cargo pants. I hope that wherever you are right now, you’re surrounded by books, public television, and lots and lots of pockets.

  6. you two are saints. and also, you just need to move a few blocks away—it’s very different over here and smells a hell of a lot better.

  7. That fact that it was you who cared enough to call says so much about the fact that he was lucky to have you as neighbors. Even if you feel guilty about what happened, and how it happened…. you did offer him the most important human connection of all. You cared whether or not he was still on this earth.

    If you truly do decide to quit Baltimore, San Francisco would welcome you with both arms. It really is where everyone goes to get lost and found.

  8. I think this is it. Time to go. I can’t imagine a more clear sign. You did what you could to be a neighbor and a human being, don’t beat yourself up about it. You know you and Holly are good people and this doesn’t change that.

  9. thanks for the nice comments, everyone. yeah, we did what we could, i guess, but there’s always that regret that we could’ve done more.

    yesterday was kind of a nighmare, too–going back to our house. i’ll be posting about that soon. in the meantime, just think good thoughts that we keep our sanity. i am *this close* to losing it…

  10. Thanks for writing this profound posting. It’s a wake-up call to people who don’t take the time to get to know and understand their neighbors. There are old and lonely people out there, and they need our love. While this event was traumatic for you (I really do understand and sympathize), it’s about way more than you and your neighbors. It’s about community and how much better we can make it. Thank you.

  11. My friend just sent me the link to this, and I have to say, it has moved me to tears (and I’m not generally a ‘crier’). You did the best you could; you went above and beyond than anybody else did.

    It’s particularly pertinent to me having read this today, as yesterday I visited my grandmother, who lives on her own. My father is wonderful, in that he sees her most days, does her grocery shopping and various other things so that she is able to live in the home she raised her family in. Yesterday, she said to me that she gets lonely. It took my breath away and I’ve been thinking about it ever since which led me into a partial state of melancholy, as she’s never said this to me before.

    Thank you for writing and posting this, and thank you for doing what you did with such dignity and care. You are the people who define what is ‘community’.

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